Pope faces minefield in historic visit to Britain

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Pope Benedict XVI embarks Thursday on a historic but delicate visit to Britain as the paedophile priest scandals and tensions with the Anglican Communion threaten to undermine his mission.

The first state visit of a pope to Britain -- his predecessor John Paul II made a "pastoral visit" in 1982 -- will begin in Scotland, where Benedict will meet Queen Elizabeth II, titular head of the world's Anglicans, at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh.

The 83-year-old head of the Roman Catholic Church will proceed to Glasgow, London and Birmingham on the four-day trip.

He will meet British Prime Minister David Cameron and attend mass gatherings that will feature singing sensation Susan Boyle and The Priests, a trio of Catholic priests.

But paedophilia will be a dominant theme, notably because the pope is expected to meet with victims for a fourth time in his five-year-old papacy.

"At least on that day, there will be a lot of talk about that," Vatican expert Andrea Tornielli of the conservative Italian daily Il Giornale told AFP.

The Vatican would however not confirm the mooted encounter with 10 British victims in London.

Pope Benedict met with victims during trips to Australia and the United States in 2008 as well as in Malta in April this year.

The Vatican was plunged into deep crisis in 2009 after two successive reports in Ireland revealed widespread abuse mainly of boys by priests going back decades, coupled with alleged high-level cover-ups by the Church hierarchy.

Protests are set to unite those who accuse Benedict of not doing enough to crack down on predator priests with activists who oppose his views on a range of issues such as abortion, contraception, women's ordination and gay couples' right to adopt children.

The main protest is set to take place in London, where an estimated 2,000 people will march from Hyde Park to the prime minister's Downing Street office.

The relatively small number suggests general indifference to the second visit by a pope since England's King Henry VIII broke with the Church of Rome in 1534, according to the Vatican, which asserted that Britain has more anti-pope sentiment than anywhere else.

Britain's 5.2 million Catholics make up less than 10 percent of the population.

A recent opinion poll found that four in five Britons say they are indifferent to the pope's visit, while 77 percent objected to the cost estimated at more than 20 million euros (25 million dollars) in public money.

The British government is paying up to 14.5 million euros for the state elements of the visit, while Catholic churches in Britain have contributing up to 10 million pounds (12 million euros) for the religious aspects, of which six million has already been raised.

"Pilgrim contributions" of between six and 30 euros will be solicited at the pope's public appearances, another object of harsh criticism.

The pope will also be walking on eggshells in handling relations with the Anglican Communion since the official highlight of the trip will be the beatification of 19th-century cardinal and writer John Henry Newman, an Anglican who converted to Catholicism.

Some 65,000 people are expected to attend the beatification mass set to take place on September 19 in Birmingham.

Pope Benedict last year announced measures making it easier for disaffected Anglicans to join the Catholic fold.

"Part of the Anglican world considers it like a sort of incorporation on the part of the Catholic Church," said Marco Politi, the Vatican expert for Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano.

The pope has appeared undaunted by the diplomatic challenge, saying on Wednesday that he was "very much looking forward" to the trip.

Tornielli predicted that Benedict would "not fail to speak out against what he believes are dangerous trends, such as the adoption of children by gay parents."

© 2010 AFP

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